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“When a road is blocked off or is jammed up – as happens often in this town – we may have to go around," graduating student Richie Szopinski said to about 80 fellow graduates at Coconino Community College’s first commencement ceremony Friday morning.

"Sure, it may take us a bit longer, and we may not like it initially, but we should never underestimate it. Who knows, you might just find something out about yourself that you might never have if you had taken the alternate route,” he said. 

Speakers shared common themes of adaptability and flexibility in their presentations at both CCC and Northern Arizona University, which each hosted two graduation ceremonies Friday. NAU will hold an additional two on Saturday to accommodate a total of more than 5,000 graduates.

Arizona Board of Regents Chair Ron Shoopman said at the NAU ceremony Friday afternoon that Arizona has welcomed 40,000 new university graduates this year, the most ever.

“You are at the peak of your own personal mountain,” NAU President Rita Cheng told graduates.

Even on a mountaintop, though, roadblocks are present. Szopinski’s metaphor was especially applicable to Flagstaff as residents once again confronted the semiannual influx of graduating students and families.

Students from near and far traveled to their schools’ main campuses this week, navigating their own obstacles along the way.

“If you’re not adaptable, you’re not going to survive,” CCC President Colleen Smith said to her graduates.

Clarissa Tallman and Patrick St. Germain, CCC students from Page, said they awoke before sunrise to arrive at the Lone Tree Campus in time for the morning ceremony.

In contrast, for Cole Mares, a CCC graduate who has lived in Flagstaff for five years, the familiar commute was just a few minutes in duration. Mares will make a lengthier journey in the fall, though, when he transfers to Arizona State University to study engineering.

“I’m relieved to have it over with and I’m proud of what I’ve done,” he said.

Others from across the state introduced themselves to the area just in time to receive their diplomas.

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Margo Bogossian and Cheryll Haupt, two NAU online students, said commencement marked their first visit to NAU.

Haupt, a veteran of the U.S. Military and Sierra Vista resident who received a bachelor’s degree in career and technical education, said she was excited to finally earn a degree 37 years after graduating from high school. She is the first in her family to obtain a college degree.

“I live in rural Arizona and online college is an excellent opportunity for people who live rurally to expand more than they could otherwise. For rural Arizona, it is freedom,” Haupt said.

Though Bogossian lives in Tucson and works at the University of Arizona, she also utilized the online program to complete her master’s in educational leadership.

For students who relocated to attend school, the journey didn’t always feel too far from home, despite hundreds of miles of separation.

Chason Uruu, who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in information systems, said he chose to attend NAU because of its similarities to his home in Hawaii.

“It has that same kind of culture as Hawaii, where everyone is really accepting and open to new people within their lives. I like the people around here,” he said.

Families replicated their students’ journeys this week, sometimes in large caravans, to celebrate their students’ success.

Evan Cover was one of 12 to travel from Phoenix to Flagstaff to see his nephew, Bradford Pierce, graduate with his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management.

“I am super excited. It’s been a long time and I’m so proud of him,” Cover said.

As the graduates start to develop lives and careers of their own, NAU honorary doctoral recipient Kareem Neal, the 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year, reminded them that a healthy dependence on others – family and colleagues – is as important as flexibility, a message for future teachers that rings true for all of Flagstaff’s graduates.

“You need to use your team and your resources. … You need to be flexible. We are there for students. We are there to make sure all students get the best possible education we can give them and you don’t do that by being inflexible. You have to be ready to change at the drop of a dime,” Neal said.

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 

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